Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Value of Down-Time

Over the last couple of decades, the world (at least the richer part) has been moving rapidly towards the so-called network society, where people are always-connected and have access to virtually limitless amount of information through ubiquitous information networks.

However, a funny thing seems to have happened on our way towards this promised land of information cornucopia: people now actually are spending less time thinking.  Sure, we spend vastly more time consuming and generating information than ever before, but the amount of time we actually spend in synthesizing and reflecting on the information we already have appears to be dwindling.   One culprit is the the disappearance of "down-time".   

We used to have episodic down-times throughout our day -- time gaps between tasks/appointments, and idle times in transit.  But the ubiquitous information connectivity has banished such down-times.  I was taking an MRT train ride the other day, and as I looked around, practically everyone was occupied with their mobile devices, whether talking, texting, watching video, listening to MP3 or playing games. As they alighted at the train stop, many continued to be occupied with their information appliance while walking.  I could imagine them reaching home and immediately going online to catch up with their emails, internet surfing, or social network updating.   You go to meetings, the scene is repeated:  everyone busy clicking away on their blackberries or iphones under the table whenever there is a null before (and often during) the meeting proceedings.

Because we are constantly bombarded with information, we are constantly distracted.  The messages keep coming to your blackberry, so it is hard to ignore.  And everyday brings tons of new apps for your iphone, just a click away for you to try.  Your email inbox is forever growing faster than you can delete, let alone read.  Most of us have been so conditioned to respond to the constant flood of information coming at us that we have forgotten what it is like to have down-time.    Indeed,  the "digital native" youth generation has come to equate down-time with boredom: most teenagers can't imagine being idle for an hour with no information to consume.  

For me, down-time is not boring, but represents valuable time to think.  Thinking requires shutting out distractions, so that you can concentrate on making sense of the information you already have, and to frame and prioritize what new information to look out for.  Otherwise, you will just be forever drowning in a sea of new information. 

To protect your donw-time for thinking, you need to resist the temptation to be interrupted by your information appliances all the time.   Some of my younger colleagues are surprised when I told them I deliberately chose not to have email connectivity on my mobile phone, so as to reduce the tempations to be distracted.  My mobile phone is usually on silent mode as well. 

My younger colleagues are also surprised to learn that, once in a while, I chose to take a one hour bus/MRT ride between home and office (on days when my schedule is not packed), and that I often do not turn on my MP3 player during the ride.   "Won't that be boring? Aren't you wasting your time by not driving or taking a taxi?" They asked.  I told them that it is a good disciplining mechanism to ensure a solid one hour of uninterrupted reflective thinking time.  

Of course, down-time is valuable not just for thinking -- I believe we all need to reclaim more down-time to do other things, including to be with our friends and loved ones, to exercise, to pursue our hobby, to relax, daydream, meditate, even to do nothing.  It is also true that our information appliances are not just tools for work, but also a valuable means to develop our social life with people who are physically distant from us, as well as for personal entertainment, so it is not an either-or thing.   My basic point is that, just as we need work-life balance, we need a balance of down- and up- time, and a balance between time for reflective thinking and information consumption. 

John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens to you when you are busy making plans".  I guess a more apt version today would be: "Life is what happens to you when you are busy going online".  Are you safeguarding sufficient down-time in your hectic life?



Friday, February 5, 2010

ASEAN's Declining Weight in the World Economy

[NOTE: An abridged version of this post appears in the Straits Times today.]

ASEAN has been considered one of the most successful regional groupings in the world since its inception in 1967 to the mid 1990s. Over the period 1980-97, ASEAN achieved higher economic growth than most other regions in the world. However, economic realities dramatically changed in the decade since the onset of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 and the emergence of China and India as economic powerhouse in Asia from the mid-1990s. After experiencing a sharp decline in economic performance over 1997-98 as a result of the Asian Financial Crisis, ASEAN as a group did rebound in the ensuing period, but contrary to popular impression, the region had never quite recovered its former competitiveness in the world economy. Not only had ASEAN’s share of world GDP, trade and inward direct foreign investment (DFI) declined between 1997 and 2007, ASEAN’s productivity growth (as measured by the growth of GDP per capita adjusted for inflation and purchasing power parity (PPP)) in the 1997-2007 period had declined both absolutely (when compared to the earlier period of 1980-97) and relatively (when compared to the world average).
Table 1 highlights the declining weight of the group of ten ASEAN countries (ASEAN10) in the global economy in the decade since the Asian financial crisis in 1997. While ASEAN10’s share of the world population increased over 1980-2007, its shares in the world’s GDP, trade and inward DFI all reached their peaks in 1997, and despite some recovery, were still lower in 2007 than in 1997. The most dramatic fall is in ASEAN10’s share of world total inward DFI flows – so much so that ASEAN10’s share of total world inward DFI flows had dropped below its share of world GDP and trade from 1998 onwards, a reversal of the situation before 1997.
It is true that the decline of ASEAN’s weight in the world economy coincided with the rapid rise of China and India. However, even if we net out China and India, ASEAN’s shares of the rest of the world in terms of trade and inward DFI had still not recovered to their peaks in 1997, and only marginally improved in terms of GDP share.
An even more disturbing picture emerges when we examine ASEAN’s competitiveness through the lens of productivity growth (see Table 2). After adjusting for purchasing power parity (PPP) and inflation, the six largest ASEAN countries’ per capita GDP growth in the period 1997-2007 averaged only 2.3% p.a., significantly below the 5.3% p.a. it achieved in the period 1990-97. Even if we discount the sharp drop over 1997-98, ASEAN’s growth in the 1998-2007 period (3.6% p.a.) is still substantially below the average growth it achieved a decade earlier.
More tellingly, the ASEAN6’ average GDP per capita growth performance over 1997-2007 was not only significantly less than that of China (8.7%) and India (5.5%), but had fallen behind the average of the world (2.5%), the group of low income countries (2.9%), lower-middle income countries (5.7%) as well as upper-income countries (3.1%). The only group of countries that grew more slowly than ASEAN6 is the group of high-income countries (2.0%). By 2007, China’s GDP per capita, after PPP adjustment, had already overtaken ASEAN6’s, even though it was only 42% of the latter in 1990.
The global media had rightly highlighted the last decade of the 20th century as the “lost decade” for the largest economy in Asia – Japan. Although less obvious, future economic historians may well refer to the decade after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis as the lost decade for ASEAN. Yes, ASEAN did recover from the Asian financial crisis and achieved moderate economic growth during that decade. And yes, the rapid rise of the two Asian mega-economies -- China and India -- did contribute to the relative decline of ASEAN in the expanding global economic pie. But the fact remains that ASEAN’s productivity had not kept pace with the rest of the world in the decade of 1997-2007. ASEAN is unlikely to have done better in the recent financial crisis years of 2008-09.
Virtually all economists would agree that the slow pace of economic integration and liberalization among the ASEAN member states has been an important contributing factor in preventing ASEAN from realizing its full economic growth potential. Throughout the last decade, intra-ASEAN trade had been at or below one-quarter of total ASEAN trade, much less than in the case of the European Union (about two-thirds among EU25 and over 40% in NAFTA). As global competition continues to intensify, we can only hope that ASEAN policy makers will make up for lost time by speeding up the economic integration process in the next decade.

Table 1 - ASEAN’s weight in the World Economy
ASEAN10’s Share in: 1980 1990 1997 2000 2007
World Population 8.1% 8.29% 8.43% 8.45% 8.46%
World GDP 2.2% 2.9% 3.9% 3.6% 3.8%
World Trade 3.3% 4.4% 6.5% 6.2% 5.8%
World Inward FDI flows 4.9% 6.2% 7.1% 1.7% 3.3%
World Inward FDI stock 2.6% 3.3% 5.5% 4.6% 3.6%

Table 2 Per Capita Income Growth of ASEAN
Compound Annual Growth Rate of Real GDP per capita (PPP)
1980-1990 1990-1997 1997-2007
ASEAN6 - 5.3 2.3
Low income 0.2 0.6 2.9
Lower middle income 3.2 4.2 5.7
Upper middle income 0.1 -0.6 3.1
High income 2.3 1.7 2.0
World 1.4 1.2 2.5
China 7.7 10.2 8.7
India 3.3 3.4 5.5

Sources for both tables: Wong, P.K. and K.K. Ng (2008), “The Competitiveness of ASEAN after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis”, LKYSPP-ACI Monograph, December 2008

Monday, January 11, 2010

blogging vs. tweeting as forms of explorative vs. exploitative learning

I have taken a leave of absence from blogging for the last 4 months, due partly to heavy work & travel schedule, but also because I wanted to focus on experimenting with tweeting as an alternative way to share ideas and information online. Unlike celebrities who need to feed their fan with their latest happenings constantly, my goal was very modest -- to share ideas or information I found interesting with my network of 500+ or so contacts on Facebook and Linkedin. I arranged for my twitter tweets to be broadcast as updates on my Facebook and Linkedin. I wasn't focused on attracting followers who do not know me.

Based on my limited experience over the last 4 months, I've found tweeting to be particularly useful as a mean to share meta-information (information about information). Tweeting is also good for sharing snippets of interesting ideas as they emerge. Its advantage is that it takes little effort, and hence can be done almost in real-time as you yourself come across the information item or idea. In fact, I've come to rely on it as a handy way to bookmark useful ideas or information items I found on the net for myself -- besides being more readily shared with others, its advantage over conventional bookmarking is that it captures the time and annotated context I found the idea/item of interest.

However, the flip side is that tweeting doesn't quite convey sufficiently the nuances surrounding an idea and the contextual rationale/implications of an information item to those we are sharing the information with. For that, blogging is a better format, where you have more rooms to elaborate on the idea, why you found it interesting, and what inputs you are seeking from others.

Browsing tweets also represents an effective way to quickly scan potentially interesting ideas and information across multiple domains of interest -- by choosing the right mix of people to follow, one can get a good feel of the pulse of any community of interest at any moment in time, and after a while, you get a sense of the flow. There is also a greater chance to encounter the kind of serendipitious learning I talked about in an earlier blog. This is different from following blogs, which require more time commitment and a stronger sense of purpose in terms of the specific kind of subject areas or topics you want to dive more into.

Tweeting and blogging thus nicely typify the difference between explorative vs. exploitative learning that I talked about a while ago. In following others' tweets, I'm in an explorative learning mode, browsing for ideas and meta-information that I might find interesting for myself or my networks. I tend to be more targeted and focused in my information search when I read blogs -- I prefer to focus on a small number of bloggers whom I know have interesting thoughts on specific topics of interest to me. This is more akin to exploitative learning. Likewise, in sharing information via tweeting, I'm sending out thoughts and ideas as they emerge, whereas in blogging, I'm in a more reflective mode, trying to synthesize ideas and thoughts that have been brewing for a while. Tweeting is to width search as Blogging is to depth search.

Of course, for someone in my profession -- academic research, education content development and start-up investing -- blogging is still very much closer to the spontaneous/explorative end in the continuum of intellectual thinking; the bulk of my thinking time remains anchored at the other half of the continuum, where highly focused information search and precisely directed exploitative analysis are essential -- that's how good quality academic journal papers are written, and that's how start-up investing due diligence and post-deal venture development work are carried out.

Explorative and exploitative learning are complementary in the intellectual pursuit of everyone. Having experimented with both blogging and tweeting, I've decided both will be an integral part of what I'll do in the future. It feels good to be back blogging again!